Anarchy and solidarity on May Day
“So are we in solidarity with each other, or are we united?”
This question came up yet again on Monday night, at the final coalition meeting for May Day that included people from organized labor, immigrants’ groups and Occupy Wall Street. It came in the midst of a debate about whether or not we should designate separate zones for various coalition partners during our joint evening march. Trying to mash everyone into one giant group might create a sense of unity, but then the groups’ individual needs might not be met. Occupiers whispered to each other about how the lack of a defined OWS zone would mean the unions would end up marshalling our contingent. In the end, everyone agreed that separate zones were most appropriate; true solidarity with one another meant recognizing our diverse methods of organizing and tactics for resistance.
Achieving apparent unity is easy; whoever shouts the loudest or lobbies the hardest typically wins over the group. It is solidarity — respecting each other’s particular methods and skill sets — that is truly revolutionary. Trying to impose unity over the entire action would leave no one satisfied, and it would actually serve to divide us. This solidarity-versus-unity struggle has been playing out inside OWS as a whole for a while now, as well as in our May Day planning meetings. After months of trying to impose decisions upon each other, which was serving only to divide us, the May Day planning committee has quietly moved away from unity and towards solidarity. It’s about time.
The call to help organize a national general strike on May Day had no lack of interested parties in New York City from a diverse cross-section of activists. The first call to meet as an “exploratory committee” brought together around 75 people back in January, including radicals from Occupy Wall Street and across New York City, alongside seasoned labor organizers and others. This diversity has persisted throughout the planning process, resulting in some incredible breakthroughs and synergy, as well as deep reflection and sometimes painful challenges.
Anarchists like myself are accustomed to striving to create “safer spaces” where we do our best to check our privileges of every kind at the door. This compels us to develop particular strategies to raise up marginalized voices by adhering to consensus process and respecting each other’s autonomy to make our own tactical and strategic choices. Becoming accustomed to these ways of interacting with one another can make it difficult for anti-authoritarians to organize in other types of spaces, where people are more used to organizing hierarchically. The first few OWS May Day meetings were well-populated with radical feminists, queer anarchists, insurrectionists and others from the New York anarchist community. As has been happening in OWS as a whole, many of these people began feeling uncomfortable and marginalized in those meetings and, by and large, stopped attending. But many of us did remain in the project and continued working with an ever-growing coalition of OWS folks, labor and immigrant worker justice groups. This coalition, in itself, is historic.
Our coalition partners wanted to set up a “4×4” steering committee with four representatives from each of the four groups: organized labor, the May 1st Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights, community-based organizations and Occupy Wall Street. But since the Occupy movement tends to operate on the core anarchist principles of horizontality and consensus, having formal representatives of any kind at the 4×4 wouldn’t work for us. We informed our partners that we would feel more comfortable using a spokescouncil at these meetings. This would mean that as many OWS folks as wished to attend would be welcome, and the four people empowered to speak at a given time would act as non-autonomous spokes, reflecting to our partners the will of the group seated behind them. For large decisions, we would need to take a brief break and come to consensus as a group before reporting back to the coalition.
Our partners were very receptive to us operating in this manner, and it even seemed like a bit of our horizontally rubbed off on them. When it was time to open up the process and call large meetings to plan the details of the solidarity march, they at first suggested that each group should get only one vote — total. OWS balked at this, and an agreement was reached to use a two-thirds-majority, modified-consensus system. This means that, first, we check for full consensus from the group, and if there are people opposed, we hear them voice their concerns before moving to a vote. Whether these processes will have a long-term effect on our partners remains to be seen, but it is something of which I am very excited and proud to have been a part.
Many of the radicals who stopped attending the early meetings moved on to work with Strike Everywhere, an autonomous group of anti-authoritarians who were agitating for a general strike in New York, outside of OWS. This model of working with exclusively like-minded folks was appealing to many of the anarchists in the OWS group, many of whom had started to feel similarly disenfranchised. A lot of the remaining anarchist organizers began working almost exclusively in clusters that featured a distinctly anti-authoritarian bent, with names like Action, Mutual Aid or Strike. Over time, as the character of each became more well-defined, all the various clusters in the project began to respect each other’s autonomy, unique skills and interests. Once we stopped constantly trying to make decisions for each other, our meetings became much more cohesive, and coordination went much more smoothly.
Meanwhile, both of the main decision-making bodies in OWS — the Spokes Council and the General Assembly — gradually became non-functional and were disbanded. Movement-wide projects are now being organized in more decentralized ways, with various groups simply coordinating with one another rather than trying to make decisions together. While some see this as a failure of process, I think it’s really one more stop in the movement’s ongoing experimentation toward a directly-democratic society. Trying to impose “unity” over the movement with the GA and Spokes led to infighting and marginalization. Being in solidarity with one another allows different groups with different backgrounds to work together effectively without trying to control one another.
Despite the struggles and the experimentation, the successes of the May Day planning group and the larger coalition are undeniable. A broad coalition of labor, immigrant worker justice groups, community organizations, Occupy assemblies and students has been forged. Through a decentralized action model, there will be dozens of simultaneous direct actions across the city, creating time and space between ones that are family-friendly and others that are more aggressive. Thousands of people will be sharing resources and skills, practicing and learning about mutual aid in Bryant Park and Union Square. Students will be walking out of their schools and opening a free university. Workers will be occupying their workplaces, kicking out exploitative bosses and managing the businesses for themselves. A call for a general strike was made, and endorsed by the largest labor organization in New Jersey, the Industrial Labor Council. Ways have been found for other labor groups to participate without breaking laws against striking, by calling for a “99 Pickets” action that will aim to shut down the flow of finance capital in Midtown on the morning of May Day.
I’m proud to have worked beside hundreds of others on this project, and I am confident that the effects of May Day will bellow out across the globe. But I can’t help but wonder how much more we could have accomplished if it hadn’t taken us three long months to realize that we needed to act in solidarity with each other, not in some kind of unity. Regardless, I count this gradual discovery among the many successes of anarchist organizing models in the brief history of this movement.